How Cameron Diaz struck a deal that ended up earning her double the production budget of a movie, thanks to a very calculated risk.

Costing a mere $20m to make, 2011’s Bad Teacher I’d argue isn’t a particularly memorable film. As much as I try and write about movies I quite like, when I walked out of the cinema having watched it the first time, I had little inclination to go back for a second viewing. Not terrible, just very forgettable.

If anything, one of the things it’s most notable for is what the creatives would go on to do after it. Director Jake Kasdan would reboot the Jumanji franchise, with two very well received films and counting. Meanwhile, writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky – having enjoyed success as part of the writing team on The Office – would come close to doing Ghostbusters III and also penned the underappreciated comedy Good Boys. It’s worth noting too that Bad Teacher was a project that gained them extra exposure by appearing on the 2008 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

But until recently, what I wasn’t aware of was the story of a stunning piece of negotiation on behalf of Cameron Diaz and her reps that ultimately earned her a whopper of a payday. Especially for a film that, on paper, was really quite a modest one. The film would earn its star, in the end, double its actual production budget.

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I’ve always felt that Cameron Diaz is a hell of a comedy actor. From her breakthrough in The Mask and box office dominance with There’s Something About Mary, she’s got an ability to lead a movie, and also to elevate material. I liked too she was willing to look for edgier stuff. The Last Supper I think is a terrific, overlooked 90s indie film, and Being John Malkovich was as bold a gamble as any around the time. She was seeking out interesting dramatic material like that long before she landed on the radar of Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese.

But also, comedy was her home turf, and the Bad Teacher project seemed suited for her strong comedic talents. The film had been in gestation before she committed to it, and on the surface, the deal she struck was a cheap one. She’d make the film for an upfront salary of $1m – a lot of money to you and me, but far below the movie star scale of the time. In the 90s after all, $15-20m salaries were being thrown around. Even in the more frugal early 2000s, Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey et al were banking sometimes $30m+ for movie projects.

Diaz never quite broke into that bracket off the back of an up-front fee. In fact, no female performer did. But instead, what she achieved with Bad Teacher was regarded for a good period of time as a legendary deal in Hollywood circles. Because she did the age-old trick of lowering her up-front rate in exchange for a higher proportion of the back end. It got her into the project quickly, and it made her incredibly wealthy when the film then overperformed at the box office.

This kind of deal in itself isn’t anything new. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, for instance, did the same thing on Saving Private Ryan – both in fact do the same on most of their films – and there are many examples in the same decade of other actors too taking a similar gamble. The idea that they share the risk of a project to help get it off the ground (as opposed to the 90s version of some star salaries, where there were several instances of big names taking both a huge salary and a slice of the takings).

But what Diaz did was gamble on a movie that didn’t seem like much of a pot of gold as, say, a Spielberg venture. Sure, Bad Teacher had a simple high concept by which to sell it, but few would have pegged it as the kind of film that’d earn a star a $42m payday.

Yet that’s just what happened. She took a sizeable pay cut when taking the movie on, and the takings stacked up. It was one of those rare Hollywood cases where seemingly everybody won (arguably with the exception of the audience).

Reading around, what’s particularly interesting about Diaz’s case too is that it seems the option to take her fee up front was actually there if that’s what she wanted. She could have banked the best part of eight figures for taking on the lead, but a different deal was struck. What’s less clear is whose idea that deal was. Bottom line, there was more than enough money to go around once the takings were tallied.

Furthermore, there were ultimately plans for a Bad Teacher 2, as Sony enjoyed the $216m gross the low risk comedy had brought in. The studio had, after all, scored a movie star-led production – buoyed by the added casting at the time of Justin Timberlake – for a pittance in 2010s terms. Sure, Diaz absolutely coined it in, but so did Sony. The sequel may not have happened, but a television spin-off series did (not a successful one, but it all added to the coffers). And beyond that, Sony had in place talent relationships with key figures. Kasdan would direct Sex Tape – also starring Diaz – for Sony, and the star would take one of the lead roles in the Annie musical remake too.

Cameron Diaz is heavily-reported to have retired from acting, and Annie remains her last on-screen credit to date, released six and a half years ago at the time of writing. It’s worth noting that another female star who broke through with comedy also, in Diaz’s footsteps, brokered a similarly lucrative deal. Sandra Bullock cut her fee dramatically to star in Alfonso Cuaron’s hugely-ambitious Gravity, and ended up banking over $70m.

I for one though miss Cameron Diaz on the big screen. I’ve long felt – and I’m very much not alone – that comedy is an underappreciated genre, and she was excellent at it. Off the back of the Bad Teacher negotiations, and the deal whose ramifications rippled through Hollywood for years afterwards, she’s absolutely no slouch on the business side of things either.

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